Thursday, March 17, 2011
Tucson, Ariz. San Diego State's players chased Devon Beitzel around screens, got hands in his face, challenged his shots.
Nothing seemed to work, just like in two regular-season games against BYU's Jimmer Fredette.
But, just like they did against the real Jimmer, the Aztecs eventually figured out a way to shut down Little Jimmer and finally win an NCAA tournament game.
Second-seeded San Diego State tightened its defense after a second-half scoring flurry by Beitzel and advanced in the NCAA tournament for the first time by beating Northern Colorado 68-50 in the West regional Thursday.
"This is a win for everybody that's been associated with San Diego State," Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. "And I need to go beyond our 12 years, for everybody that's put on a San Diego State uniform or walked the halls there. We've got a lot of proud Aztecs today."
The Aztecs (33-2) had their hands full with the 15th-seeded Bears of the Big Sky early and looked to be in trouble when Beitzel hit 3-pointers in rapid succession to open the second half.
San Diego State withstood the flurry and calmly turned Northern Colorado away behind its defense, answering Beitzel's burst with a 13-0 run that turned the potential upset into a runaway win.
Kawhi Leonard had 21 points and 10 rebounds, Billy White added 12 points and 13 rebounds, and James Rahon hit some big shots during the big run on his way to 12 points.
One tournament win finally in the books, the Aztecs move on to face Temple on Saturday, looking to make it two straight.
"Relief? Kind of, but we're not satisfied yet," San Diego State guard D.J. Gay said. "We know we're a very good team capable of making a run. This one feels good, but we win the next one, that one will feel a lot better."
White helped stop the Jimmer Show in the Mountain West Conference final and the Aztecs tapped Chase Tapley to chase Northern Colorado's Little Jimmer, Beitzel.
Tapley hounded Beitzel into a tough-shooting first half, but the Big Sky player of the year scored eight quick points in the second to get Northern Colorado within three. Beitzel and the rest of the Bears went cold after that, though, their hopes of leaving their first trip to the NCAA tournament with a win squashed by a nearly 7-minute scoreless drought.
A disappointing end, sure, but a big step for a program that had the nation's worst RPI just a few years ago.
"Where there was a Division II program five years ago, those guys have built a championship-level Division I program," Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill said. "That's an amazing, amazing feat in that short of time."
The Aztecs put together their best season in 90 years as a program, setting a school record for wins and avenging their only two losses during the regular season by steamrolling BYU and Fredette in the Mountain West Conference tournament title game.
What San Diego State needed to punctuate it was an NCAA tournament victory.
The Aztecs had been to the NCAA tournament six prior times and had a first-round exit in each, including three under Fisher. San Diego State was hoping to avoid losing some of the national luster it had built up during the regular season and strip itself of that can't-get-it-done-in-March label.
Northern Colorado's task was to avoid getting run over while staring at the lights on the big stage.
The Bears have only been Division I since 2006-07 and made a quick climb after a rough start, winning this season's Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles to get into the NCAAs for the first time.
Northern Colorado has a pack of tenacious rebounders and one of the best smaller-program players in Beitzel, the nation's 12th-leading scorer (21.4 points).
But this was a much bigger stage, against a taller, more athletic team than anything the Bears see in the Big Sky.
San Diego State's also had some success stopping high-scoring guards, too, holding Fredette to 10-of-25 shooting in the MWC title game.
White got a lot of credit for putting a stop to Jimmer Time and figured to get the task of controlling Beitzel.
Instead, Fisher changed things up, sending Tapley out to hound Beitzel.
It worked in the first half.
Beitzel hit some shots early, but had to work hard for everything he got, even to get through screens. Tapley swatted a shot from behind after Beitzel got by him in the early going, then got a piece of a 3-point attempt a few minutes later.
Beitzel had eight points on 3-of-8 shooting in the first half, though he got enough help from his teammates to keep the Bears within six.
Then he gave Northern Colorado hope of the upset.
Getting good screens from his teammates, the senior heated up, popping in a pair of 3-pointers and a just-the-right-English drive through the lane in the first 4 minutes. Beitzel added another 3 that made it 38-35 with just over 14 minutes left.
"I was just trying to stay aggressive," Beitzel said. "That's all it was."
Turned out to be the end for Northern Colorado.
Struggling against San Diego State's pressure, the Bears didn't score again until Mike Proctor hit a layup with 7½ minutes left.
The Aztecs pushed its lead to 16 during the scoreless streak and never let the Bears close after that, finally dancing their way into the NCAA's third round.
"Feels good to not only be here, but win and advance," Fisher said.
Now it's time for the next step.